Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, Chairman of National People's Congress Li Zhanshu, left, attend a plenary session at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia.
Hong Kong CNN  — 

As Russian forces suffer a string of stunning defeats in Ukraine, Moscow is playing up Beijing’s support for its invasion ahead of a key meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week.

Russian troops were forced to flee the strategic city of Izium – their main bastion in northeastern Ukraine – on Saturday after a swift Ukrainian counteroffensive.

It was Moscow’s worst defeat since its retreat from Kyiv in March – and a sign that the war might be entering a new phase. Over the past week, Ukrainian forces have recaptured more than 3,000 square kilometers of territory – more than Russian forces have captured in all their operations since April.

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Back in Russia, senior Russian and Chinese officials put on a united front to pave the way for an expected meeting between Putin and Xi on the sidelines of a regional summit in Uzbekistan – their first face-to-face meeting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

And according to the Russian Parliament, a senior Chinese leader has voiced explicit support for Russia’s war on Ukraine – claims that are not included in the statement from the Chinese side, and run contrary to Beijing’s previous efforts to maintain a veneer of neutrality.

On Thursday and Friday, China’s top legislator Li Zhanshu – a close ally of Xi and third-ranking leader of the Chinese Communist Party – met with Vyacheslav Volodin, chairman of Russia’s State Duma, and other Russian lawmakers in Moscow after attending an economic forum in the eastern city of Vladivostok.

According to a statement from the State Duma, Li assured its members that “China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine.”

“We see that the United States and its NATO allies are expanding their presence near the Russian borders, seriously threatening national security and the lives of Russian citizens. We fully understand the necessity of all the measures taken by Russia aimed at protecting its key interests, we are providing our assistance,” Li was quoted as saying.

“On the Ukrainian issue, we see how they have put Russia in an impossible situation. And in this case, Russia made an important choice and responded firmly,” he added.

Beijing has firmly refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – or even refer to it as a “war.” Instead, it has repeatedly laid the blame for the conflict on NATO and the United States.

02:54 - Source: CNN
China refusing to condemn Russia's actions in Ukraine

But previously, Chinese officials have not publicly endorsed the “necessity” of Russia’s invasion, or admitted that Beijing was “providing assistance.”

That unequivocal supportive language is missing from the Chinese readout of the meetings. In fact, in the Chinese version, Li is not quoted as making any reference to Ukraine at all.

According to the official Xinhua News Agency, Li expressed China’s willingness to “continue to work with Russia to firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and major concerns.”

Li also criticized sanctions against Russia, calling for greater cooperation with Moscow on “fighting against external interference, sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction,” according to Xinhua.

While it is not uncommon for China to omit contents of high-level meetings in its official readouts, the significant discrepancy between Beijing and Moscow’s statements has caught the attention of experts.

“The Russian version went much further than any Chinese version. If they didn’t clear this with Beijing, that might really anger some in Beijing,” wrote Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Bad news for China?

Moscow and Beijing have emerged as closer partners in recent years as both face tensions with the West, with Xi and Putin declaring the two countries had a “no-limits” partnership weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But Russia’s recent setbacks in Ukraine could create a serious dilemma for China, just weeks before Xi is widely expected to secure a norm-breaking third term in power at a key Communist Party meeting.

“Beijing cannot calmly sit by and see Russia defeated in Ukraine, because that will lead (at a minimum) to a severely weakened Russia that is a less useful ally and less able to distract Washington, and (at a maximum) could create political instability in Moscow,” Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University, wrote on Twitter.

At an extreme, Brands added, political instability in Moscow could create instability within the “strategic partnership” in which Xi has invested so much.

“You can bet that, as Russia’s position deteriorates, Putin will look for increased Chinese support. If Beijing doesn’t find a way of providing some such support, we could see greater strains in the Sino-Russian partnership sooner than many analysts imagined,” he wrote.

It is open to question to what extent China is willing to support Russia at the cost of its own strategic interest and objectives. So far, Beijing has not provided direct military or financial aid to Moscow that could spark sanctions from Washington.

Some experts see the growing relationship between China and Russia as a mainly pragmatic one, based on cost-benefit calculations that can easily shift.

“The China-Russia relationship is not one based on ‘shared values’ or a sense of respect/affection…It is mostly based on interests. And interests can shift quickly as dynamics change,” wrote Hart, the CSIS expert.

“This does not mean the China-Russia relationship is weak. Only that it is not necessarily durable,” he added.